What Shirley Temple meant

A star of a less cynical age

Anyone over a certain age has an indelible memory of Shirley Temple. Even though she had stopped making movies long before I was even born, RTÉ introduced her films to a whole new generation of children for a period during the 1970s by showing them every Saturday morning.

This was a time when there was only one channel to watch and everything was in black and white anyway, so the fact that Shirley Temple films were in black and white made no difference to us. I used to watch them with my three sisters and so did lots of other children all over Ireland.

So we became as familiar with Shirley Temple as those who saw her movies when they first came out in the 1930s. I’d be surprised if my father didn’t see a few of them when they were actually showing in cinemas because he was born in 1926, just two years before Shirley Temple.

The only Shirley Temple film I can actually remember properly is Heidi because my own children watched it a few years ago. It had been colourised and they enjoyed it.

I’ll bet an awful lot of readers of this newspaper remember her very well though. Basically anyone middle-aged or over can remember her.


When she began to make films in Hollywood back in the 1930s, aged just four, America was in the middle of the Great Depression and needed cheering up. Her films were so successful at doing this that Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked upon it.

I suppose the other people who set about cheering up America were Laurel and Hardy whose movies, long and short, were also shown on RTÉ when I was growing up. I also sat down with my kids to watch Laurel and Hardy a few years ago and they enjoyed it. So some things really are timeless.

We tend to think of Shirley Temple films as children’s films. But adults back in the day enjoyed them a lot too in the same way adults often enjoy the Disney films they bring their children to.

Hard as it is to believe, back in her heyday, which lasted to the grand old age of about eight, Temple was bigger than even the likes of Clarke Gable, he of Gone with the Wind fame. She was the highest paid star in Hollywood for a time, although bad investment decisions by the parents meant the money was nearly all gone by the time she was an adult.

What made her films so popular was their cheerfulness, her cheerfulness. The story of Heidi was made for her. Heidi goes to live with her grandfather on the side of a mountain. Because of an incident that happened years before he has cut himself off from society and wants no human contact. He doesn’t want Heidi left with him at all.


But her cheeriness and totally unconditional love breaks through to him and because she is a child and is unaware of the ways of the world, he doesn’t feel at all judged by her and therefore feels completely unthreatened by her.

Later when she is taken away to live with the wheelchair-bound daughter of a wealthy man whose wife has died, her cheerfulness brightens up another house and another life and the girl learns to walk again.

When Heidi is restored to her grandfather, he becomes reintegrated into his local community and the previously wheelchair-bound girl pays regular visit to Heidi.

The takeaway point is that people at the time and since liked Shirley Temple’s movies because they were uplifting and left a smile on your face.

Another of her films, which I can’t remember at all is Bright Eyes made in 1934. I saw it mentioned in one of the commentaries on her life.

In it she played a five-year-old who lost first her father and then in quick succession her mother.

The writer of the piece comments: “She is comforted by loving people who would do anything for her, including her godfather, who is identified as just that. The godfather behaves like a true godfather, really offering a model for godparents. The movie includes constant, natural references to faith, never shying from words like God, Heaven, and even Jesus—verboten in Hollywood today.”

Could a movie like that be made today? Have we become too cynical, too secular-minded? My hunch is that a movie like that, adapted slightly for modern tastes would still be popular but would probably never see the light of day because of the overt faith references.

In her own personal life, Temple did not suffer the same fate as other child stars. She never went off the rails, she never turned to drink or drugs. Her mother seems to have looked after her extremely well.

She did have one ill-fated marriage probably because she got married at the ridiculously early age of 17. But when she married for a second time in 1950 to Charles Black she remained married to him until his death in 2005. Fifty-five years has to be almost a record by Hollywood standards.


In later life she completely reinvented herself and became an American diplomat. She served at the UN and as American Ambassador to Czechoslovakia under the name Shirley Temple Black.

When you think of child stars today, you’re most likely to think of the likes of Miley Cyrus who came up through the Disney system and since leaving children’s television has been bending over backwards (literally) to shake off her ‘nice’ image. She’s managed to do that in spades.

Shirley Temple never damaged her image in that way or ever felt tempted to do so. Therefore those who remember her movies can still view them through the rose-coloured lens they were always intended to be viewed through. That’s quite a testament to her.